It’s a treat to welcome back Laurel Snyder to celebrate her newest novel, THE WITCH OF WOODLAND (Walden Pond Press, 2023) out May 16th, 2023. The main character, Zippy, is a witch. But she is also a tween struggling with friends, family, and faith as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah. Zippy takes readers along on her journey as she discovers her own special kind of magic and decides what’s most important to her. Like all of Laurel’s books, there is a lot of heart in THE WITCH OF WOODLAND, as if the pages themselves are sprinkled with magic dust. I’m so pleased to be able to chat with Laurel about her work.
Zippy is a unique and engaging character. She identifies herself as a witch and believes in magic, but is also connected to her Jewish identity. What challenges did you face as a writer, balancing these elements?
That’s a really interesting question, and one I didn’t expect anyone to ask!
I think that when I was a kid, I believed so deeply in magic that I never questioned how it might conflict with my Judaism. Also, I knew a lot less about Judaism than I do now, which made it easier to ignore any potential conflicts. So a big challenge with this book was simply in believing Zippy, validating that her witchcraft IS real for her, even if as an adult, it’s not real for me in quite the same way anymore.
And the other part (a BIG part of writing this book) was in forgetting some of the things I myself know about Jewish culture, folklore, and belief. Because I made Zippy the “author” of the whole book, it was important that I let her make mistakes, learn as she goes. I wanted readers to see Zippy as something of a blank slate, searching for her own answers, her own interpretations. I wanted her to be able to ask any question she wanted, without shame, and to reach her own conclusions. (even when MY conclusions might be different)
Zippy has some soul-stirring abilities (without giving spoilers). How much Jewish folklore and history did you draw from and how much was Zippy’s own special magic?
This book went through many many drafts and incarnations. In the first version, the secondary character (the soul that Zippy stirred, as you so eloquently put it) was a very different person, a Jewish boy named Abe, a factory worker from a very specific moment in Atlanta history. This draft took me deep into labor relations and union organizing, into maps of old Jewish Atlanta (pretty my own neighborhood, as it turned out), and the early synagogues and schools, as well as the Spanish Flu, Leo Frank, etc. But when I rewrote the book, all of this history disappeared. I don’t regret it, because no learning is ever lost, but I definitely did a lot of research you won’t see in the published novel.
For the final draft, I learned a lot about Jewish spirits, demons, exorcism, talismans, etc. I dug into books, podcasts, and documentaries, and read about everything from shards of mystical pottery to systems of angels. But the more I learned, the more it felt like I needed to leave ambiguity in the book, about the nature of Zippy’s magic. I feel like I could write a very long essay about this, but the short version is that the more I learn about Jewish folklore, the more I see how it evolves over time, how it blurs and blends with the culture around it. It felt false to me to shoehorn an answer into the story, that would invalidate the other (non-Jewish) aspects of who Zippy is, because Judaism is still evolving, and why shouldn’t Zippy be part of that?
You go deep with a lot of Jewish philosophy. Did you do a lot of research? If so, was there anything you discovered about Judaism that surprised you?
Judaism always surprises me! That’s one of the things I love best about it. I’ve already talked about some of my research, and don’t want to get too far into the weeds, but I’ll give a plug to a fantastic podcast, for anyone who likes this stuff. I wish I’d found it earlier in my writing process, as I think it would have changed the book a bit, but Throwing Sheyd: Better Living Through Jewish Demonology is a fantastic listen. If Zippy had discovered it, she’d have become obsessed. Another thing I discovered late in my research is that there’s an entire Jewitch movement now, a community of folks who are really knowledgeable, but also inclusive. When Zippy gets to high school or college, I bet she’ll find those folks and feel like she’s found her best friends.
Zippy’s Rabbi is supportive and kind. Is he inspired by a real Rabbi?
Ahh! Yes! I’m so glad you asked this. I’ve been lucky to have a number of wonderful rabbis (and other Jewish educators) in my life, but Rabbi Dan is definitely based on Rabbi Josh Lesser. We were so lucky to find him in Atlanta when we moved here, at Congregation Bet Haverim. He’s thoughtful and knowledgeable, and he has touched our lives in so many ways, as an educator, counselor, and mentor. He’s seen us through two bar mitzvahs (one terribly disrupted by the pandemic), as well as all the regular ups and downs of daily life. He’s radically inclusive, and never made us feel–as an intermarried family–that we weren’t full members of the community. But I think his particular gift is in talking to kids. Whether they’re 5 years old, or heading into high school, Rabbi Josh has a rare ability to make kids feel seen and respected. I hope I caught some of that in Rabbi Dan. I wanted to give that gift to Zippy.
What do you hope your readers take away from Zippy’s journey?
Permission to be their truest selves! Permission to blend the many aspects of their lives together, into something that makes sense to them, even if nobody else gets it. I definitely started this book with the hope that I’d give Jewish kids who don’t feel “typical” a way of seeing the value in their own specific Jewish experience. But honestly, we all live in a complicated world, and the more I talk to people about Zippy, the more I realize that nobody feels “typical.” I’d like readers to feel welcome, included, in whatever world they most want to inhabit.
Thank you, Laurel!
Laurel Snyder is the author of picture books and novels for children, including National Book Award nominee Orphan Island and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner Charlie & Mouse. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She lives in Atlanta with her family and can be found online at www.laurelsnyder.com.